Days of Revolt: Neoliberalism as Utopianism
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and author John Ralston Saul discuss neoliberalism as an ideology, the breakdown of that ideology, and what comes next.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. We’re filming here in Toronto with the author John Ralston Saul, who has written several extremely important books, including one that has influenced me tremendously, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, The Unconscious Civilization, The Collapse of Globalism, about neoliberalism as an ideology, the breakdown of this ideology, and what comes next.
Thank you for joining us, John.
JOHN RALSTON SAUL: It’s great to be with you.
HEDGES: So let’s talk about this idea that you laid out, I think first in Voltaire’s Bastards, where you talk about neoliberalism as not just an ideology, but a utopian ideology. What do you mean by that?
SAUL: Well, I mean, first of all, what’s astonishing is that neoliberalism has nothing to do with 19th century liberalism. In other countries it’s–the same thing is called neoconservatism, which has absolutely nothing to do with conservatism. So in both cases it’s one of those stealing, going behind the curtains and pretending you’re something you’re not in order to calm people down–we’re just a new kind of conservative, we’re just a new kind of liberal. Well, in fact they’re neither. They have nothing to do with either.
I think that the word ideology has to be used very carefully. But when people come forward with rather simplistic truths, you already know you’re in trouble when they say they’ve got the truth and they say this is what must happen, this is how things work, this is what dominates society. That’s an ideology. Sorry, we have thousands of years of experience. We know what an ideology is. A declaration of inevitability and a declaration of truth are two characteristics of an ideology. It’s a form of religion.
HEDGES: Right. Well, you talk about how the marketplace has replaced, in modern society, worship of God.
SAUL: Yeah. I mean, I think that what’s fascinating is that it begins, it happens very slowly. It creeps up from underneath the rational movement with the idea that what we require is specialization, and so that idea that we need a lot of specialists, which we do, but that these specialists will have the truth, and once you have the field covered with specialists, then all you need is a kind of heroic leadership to tell them what direction to go in, in a sense, the Bonaparte version of life. And in a way what that does is it empties out the field of the idea that you and I can sit down and talk about things and there are many possibilities, and that if we make a mistake, we have to change our minds. All of that kind of disappears, the idea of politics as a debate among people who disagree in order to find out what to do.
HEDGES: In all of your books, you focus on language and how the technocrat essentially creates or the specialist creates a system of language that is unintelligible to the outsider to lock them out.
SAUL: And which–so, essentially you end up with these silos where you now have millions, let’s say thousands and thousands and thousands of silos of impenetrable language controlled by small interest groups.
HEDGES: Economists would be–.
SAUL: Well, economists is the most classic example, because economy is an area of speculative discussion. And what you’ve seen, particularly since the Second World War, is gradually–it’s a class system with an aristocracy, a middle class, and working class or a lumpenproletariat. And the aristocracy were the economic historians, ’cause they understood the shape of the debate, what had already been done, where might we go, and then you had the kind of solid middle class, and those were the macroeconomists who could sort of do stuff, and then the microeconomists, who were the slaves or whatever, who–get me some numbers.
SAUL: Right? And what they did, most universities, was they did an intellectual cleansing of the economic historians to remove the possibility of doubt, the possibility of speculation on ideas, leaving these sort of hapless–mainly hapless macroeconomists, who fell quite easily into the hands, frankly, of the ideologues, the neoliberals, neoconservatives, who were–you know, let’s face it. What is this ideology? It’s an ideology of inevitability, an ideology based on self-interest, an ideology in which there is no real memory. And at the end of the day, it really is–it’s about power and money.
HEDGES: It’s about, you write, making every aspect of society conform to the dictates of the marketplace, which, as you point out, there’s nothing–and I think you say something like 2,000 or 5,000 years of human history to justify the absurdity that you should run a society based on–
SAUL: On the marketplace.
HEDGES: –the marketplace.
SAUL: Let me just take a tiny step back as a historical marker, which is the day that I realized that the neos were claiming that Edmund Burke was their godfather or whatever, I realized that we were into both lunacy and the denial of history, ’cause, of course, in spite of his rather crazy things about Mary Antoinette and the French Revolution, most of his career was about inclusion, standing against slavery, standing for the American Revolution, and of course leading a fight for anti-racism and anti-imperialism in India–amazing democratic [incompr.] a liberal in the terms of the early 19th century. So when you see that these guys were trying to claim him, it’s like lunatics today claiming Christ or Muhammad to do absolutely unacceptable things.
And I think that the fascinating thing is once you get rid of history, once you get rid of memory, which they’ve done with economics, you suddenly start presenting economics as something that it isn’t, and you start saying, well, the market will lead. And these entirely theoretically sophisticated experts are quoting the invisible hand, which is, of course, an entirely low-level religious image–it’s the invisible hand of God, right, running the universe. As soon as you hear that term and they say, oh, that’s what Adam Smith said–but when you talk to them, they haven’t read Adam Smith. Adam Smith isn’t taught in the departments of economics. You get quotes from Adam Smith even when you’re doing an MA or whatever. They don’t know Adam Smith. They don’t know that he actually was a great voice for fairness, incredibly distrustful of businessmen and powerful businessmen, and said never allow them to be alone in a room together or they’ll combine and falsify the market and so on, so that what we’ve seen in the last half-century is this remarkable thing of big sophisticated societies allowing the marketplace to be pushed from, say, third or fourth spot of importance to number one and saying that the whole of society must be in a sense structured and judged and put together through the eyes of the marketplace and the rules of the marketplace. Nobody’s ever done this before.
HEDGES: How did it happen?
SAUL: Well, I mean, I think it happened gradually, partly by this emptying out of the public space, by this gradual–.
HEDGES: What do you mean by that?
SAUL: Well, by the advancing of the idea of the technocracy and the gradual reduction of the space of serious political debate and ideas, and with that the rise of kinds of politicians who would be reliant on the technocracy and really were not themselves voices of ideas that would lead somewhere, you know, the humanist tradition, democratic tradition, egalitarian tradition. And we can see this all sort of petering out. And you can like them or dislike them, but you can see when the real idea of debate of ideas and risk on policy starts to peter out with Johnson and suddenly you’re into either populists or technocrats.
HEDGES: Well, you write in one of the books–I think it might be The Unconscious Civilization–that the inevitable consequence of this impoverishment of political and intellectual debate is the false populist, the Donald Trumps.
SAUL: Yeah, but Trump and Ford in Toronto–I mean, you go around the world, they’re–.
HEDGES: Right. This was the mayor of Toronto who smoked crack.
SAUL: Well, I mean, he’s crazy, if I may say. But these people become possible once the mainstream structure of inclusion has been destroyed.
In a sense, I always feel that the population–’cause you have to believe in the collective unconscious; if you don’t, you can’t believe in democracy–the population knows how difficult and slow it is to make things happen. How do you get 350 million people to find a direction? How do you do that? It doesn’t happen overnight. Only dictators believe you can do it fast. And so the population knows it’s going to be tough. We’ll try a bit of this, we’ll try a bit of that, we’ll push that one forward, we’ll punish that. And bit by bit it moves, and in moments of crisis it may move faster. But when they find that their message can’t be got through, that the system can’t hear them anymore–
HEDGES: Which is where we are now.
SAUL: –which is where–well, I think it’s where we’ve been increasingly for 30 years or so–then you start getting–first you start getting a kind of populism, say, Clinton or the British prime minister who–.
HEDGES: Which is a faux populism, because Clinton certainly assiduously served corporate power.
SAUL: Yeah, and the British prime minister, whose name–.
SAUL: Blair is exactly the same kind of thing.
HEDGES: New Labour.
SAUL: New Labour, neo-something. And so these people don’t really believe, they don’t really represent, they’re not really going to–they’ll do a few good things, but essentially they’re very interested in money. They’re not going to question any of the fundamental assertions of this new neo-thing, which is in fact a 19th century–the re-creation of 19th century pre-real democratic ideology, they’re not going to question it. They’re going to go along with it.
You know, in many ways I think that we’re in 1750 with a clapped out elite, highly educated. I mean, the 1750 aristocracy hired highly educated people–they were not in themselves. And we’re entering into this period of the unknown, where we simply don’t know what’s happening.
HEDGES: You use the Gramsci term the interregnum, where people have seen that the old ideology is discredited in the same way that eventually the divine right of kings, for instance, became discredited as an ideology, but they have yet to articulate or find the language by which they can, number one, explain their own reality, and also articulate another vision.
SAUL: You know, in–I think in ’99 I gave a speech where I literally changed my mind that day, and I’d just seen the head of the national bank of Australia, and I got up on national television in front of thousands of people and said, I think globalism is finished, it’s over; we’re now into this vacuum or interregnum, and we have a limited–.
HEDGES: Yeah. This is your book The Collapse of Globalism.
SAUL: And that eventually turned into The Collapse of Globalism. We have a limited period of time, I think a maximum of ten years, five to ten years, to figure out where we want to go next, because this thing has failed. Forget whether you were for it or against it. It’s failed. And here’s why it’s failed. What are we going to do?
HEDGES: Well, let’s stop there, because in one of your books–I’m sorry, I can’t remember which one.
SAUL: It doesn’t matter.
HEDGES: But you write–maybe it was the beginning–yes, it was the beginning of The Collapse of Globalism–you lay out how all of the promises made by globalism have collapsed, are completely false.
SAUL: Yeah, and they start falling apart after ’95.
HEDGES: Right. So tell me what globalism claims to produce and what in fact it has produced.
SAUL: Well, there’s a long list, and I myself don’t remember the list. But, I mean, it’s–.
HEDGES: And I forgot your book, so I can’t read it.
SAUL: But I mean basically you just–you go back to the ’70s, early ’70s and the ’80s, where it was laid out very clearly what globalism was and what it was going to do.
HEDGES: So we need Thomas Friedman. We can just read his column.
SAUL: [8;52] Yeah. We’d read Friedman and read all that stuff, and it’s all there, and it’s going to unleash growth.
SAUL: It’s going to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. I don’t even have to say the other half, ’cause you know none of this happened, right?
HEDGES: It’s going to create democracy.
SAUL: It’s going to widen democracy. There was a little, and then [nonsyllabic]. It’s going to destroy violence and vicious nationalism (exact opposite), and it’s going to create this sort of Renaissance around the world. So, anyway, there’s a longer list. None of this happened. It’s the exact opposite. We’re in the most nationalistic period that we’ve seen since the 1930s, with all the dangers that go along with it, what I call negative nationalism, not citizen-based nationalism, but sort of populist democracy–populist nationalism, which is the most dangerous. And you could see this happening. And I started saying this in ’99, and I kept saying it, and I kept saying what was being told to me by all the very senior state bankers, except for the Americans and the British, who weren’t bright enough–or I think the Americans weren’t bright enough and the British weren’t honest enough to admit what was actually happening, the people at the top, and that there would be a moment when there would be a terrible collapse. And you could see it coming. And that collapse would be the official moment of entering–no, of having waited too long to deal with the interregnum.
HEDGES: And we’ve had three financial collapses in the first decade of the 21st century. Three.
SAUL: And all mishandled.
HEDGES: And we’re on the cusp of another.
SAUL: And, well, the reason we keep having them is because they’re so badly handled. And the reason they’re so badly handled is because the economics community and the business school community, which is sort of the running dogs or the–.
HEDGES: Well, you liken them to the Jesuits.
SAUL: Yeah, they’re sort of the Jesuits of the business school, of the economists. They’re all in agreement.
HEDGES: Right. Right.
SAUL: So there’s–you know, you come in–.
HEDGES: Let me just interrupt there, because you describe them–I think it’s in Voltaire’s Bastards–and the institutions that trained them as systems managers, and you say all they know how to do is maintain the system. So when the system goes down, they loot the U.S. Treasury to the tune of trillions of dollars, they use the Fed to in essence give large banks and financial firms like Goldman Sachs the ability to borrow at zero percent interest, 0.8 or something percent, and all they know how to do is keep the system. They don’t know how to do anything beyond.
SAUL: Because all they are is technocrats. I mean, they are the equivalent of–I mean, the high-level ones, the ones out of Harvard or l’ENA in France, they are the Jesuits. But your millions and millions of poor kids being sent to ruin their lives into these business schools are in a sense the priests of the least interesting part of the Catholic Church before the wars of religion. And so when the crises come, they have absolutely no idea of what to do.
And remember, remember, you’re now three, four, five, six generations into globalization, ’cause most people stay in positions of power for three to five to six years. So when the first generation might have had an idea, ’cause they had a memory, maybe the second, but then the third, they’re just referring to the first two. By the time you get to 2008, you have people who have no idea of what to do when a crisis like this hits. They simply don’t have the education. They don’t have the memory. And, I mean, I’ve seen it. You stand up and say to them, well, you do realize that this has happened several times in the last 400 years. This is what happens. And they say, oh, everything’s changed. [incompr.] everything hasn’t changed. The basics have not changed. This is how you handle this kind of crisis. When a debt gets to a certain level, you rip it up.
HEDGES: Well, this is Solon,–
SAUL: It’s Solon.
HEDGES: –sixth-century Athens.
SAUL: Yeah, it’s the beginning of modern civilization in the West, and a poet takes power. In one year he does away with the draconian code and begins what we call justice in legal systems.
HEDGES: Well, he realizes that unsustainable debt–
SAUL: Is unsustainable.
HEDGES: –put in place by an aristocracy, which is essentially allowing them to seize the lands of Athenian farmers and turn them into serfs, is not only destroying the economic viability of Athens, but the political democracy itself, which is where we are.
SAUL: So he comes in, and almost immediately he basically breaks the chains, lifts the burden–removes the stones from the fields I think is how he put it. And what’s so interesting is there isn’t a single person in the West, including these neoliberal neoconservatives, who would deny that Athens is the beginning of what we call Western democracy, and yet they don’t even know that the way Athens got going as we know it was by destroying all the debt in order to launch citizenship and relaunch citizenship and justice systems.
HEDGES: And this is taken from your book, but it’s a quote from Solon where he writes about what’s happening and says “public evil enters the house of each man; the gates of his courtyard cannot keep it out; it leaps over the high wall; let him flee to a corner of his bedchamber; it will certainly find him out.”
SAUL: It’s one of the advantages of having an educated head of government, that they actually could give real language and real words to what’s happening that people can understand, not populist language, which is false language, but real language that everyone understands, that corruption isn’t just about oh, well, everybody takes a bit. You know. It actually–it removes the ability to act. And I think what’s so fascinating is that one of the major outcomes–.
HEDGES: You call it a modern form of feudalism.
SAUL: Yeah, I mean–.
HEDGES: Corporatism, but this kind of corruption.
SAUL: Well, what happens is that the old corruption, which still exists, which is just cash passing hands and stuff, but what you get out of this new system of technocracy and populism is they basically legalize corruption, so that for example the shares that are handed out to CEOs of corporations, well, they’re handed out irrespective of how well the corporation’s doing. They are not owners of the corporation.
HEDGES: Well, that’s Fuld at Lehman Brothers. He brings the whole house down and walks away with, what, $200 million, $300 million.
SAUL: But if you actually look at it as a philosophy, they say it’s capitalism. They’re actually breaking every rule of capitalism. It’s basically just employees taking the money out of the bank and walking home with it.
HEDGES: And we have to give Marx–.
SAUL: But it’s legalized.
HEDGES: Marx got that, Marx nailed that, the late stages of capitalism.
Let me just end by asking you–so we are in this interregnum. People have lost faith in a system that clearly benefits a tiny, rapacious, corrupt–you call them a mafia–oligarchic elite. But where are we going? And we may not be going anywhere good. I mean, we may be going to a more authoritarian, more–you know, you talk about this false populism. In the ’30s it was called fascism. What worries you?
SAUL: Well, I said in The Unconscious Civilization–so that would have been ’95–that our society resembled increasingly a Mussolinian society. And that was corporatism as he understood it, which was not just private corporations, but the idea that your loyalty is to a group and you’re basically driven by self-interest. And there are enormous signs that we’re already in that, even though we still have on the surface a democratic form, and right at the bottom, of course, belief among citizens that they are in a democracy. But in the middle is this gigantic and growing really Mussolinian–. You have to forget about the uniforms and the goosestepping and all that stuff. What Mussolini actually stood for was the corporatism which dominates in the West today.
So how do you evacuate the middle and put together the form which still remains and the belief which I think is there in the citizenship? Because the citizens do have a long memory. That’s the optimist in me. We do have a long memory. We know where we’ve come from. We just can’t figure out how to make it work.
So I think there are real choices to be made. There was choices being made. We’re still being terribly distracted by this increasing rise of populism, by the loss of real language. I think–believe it or not, one of the most important things we have to do–and I guess it’s what you and I try to do, which is we have to put on the table real language attached to real memory which people could use, which makes sense to people. And I’m absolutely thrilled when I hear not just you quoting me but when I hear somebody who is not a writer using the ideas that one has put out–you can think about it this way, think about what’s happening this way. Suddenly that’s power. You give people language, and they have power, and then they do something with that language.
What we’ve been living through has been a desperate desire of the technocracy–and out of that the populists and the financial corporations, the corporatism as financial business–to control language. So it’s advertising, it’s–.
HEDGES: Well, and even as you point out, not only to control language, but to supplant language with image and spectacle, which is the form of communication that any tyranny or totalitarian society uses to speak. And they have been quite successful, coupled with the rise of the security and surveillance state, the evisceration of civil liberties, the militarization of police. And I think that what you call for at its core with the recovery of language is key, but we live in a society that is reducing public chatter to idiocy.
SAUL: So, I mean, again, I said, well, where are we? We’re in 1750. Of course we’re never exactly, but where are we? Well, Cicero is either just about to be killed or has been killed. And I think if I were American I would say, look, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, you have to decide. We don’t have much time to decide. And remember that the Romans kept all the facade of the republic–the senate, the debates, the elections.
HEDGES: Right. The first citizen. Yes.
SAUL: It was all kept. But gradually there was less and less of the reality. And I think that when you go back and look at Cicero, flawed though he was, what he was trying to say was it’s very close to what we’re dealing with today.
HEDGES: Well, and we should close by (without being too bleak) noting that Cicero was beheaded and his hands were cut off, and his severed head and his hands were brought to the Forum, colosseum, and the crowds were told that he would never speak or write again, and they cheered.
SAUL: And I can tell you that first of all the number of writers in prison has stayed pretty stable for a while. It’s 800-900. And this is a bad joke, but–.
HEDGES: You’re talking about globally.
SAUL: Yeah, globally. And this is a bad joke, but it’s 800. So how many generals are in prison? Eight or nine. How many prime ministers or presidents are in prison? How many businessmen are in prison? So you’re talking five, ten, 20. And 800 writers. So language still brings enormous fear to people with power.
But the other element which I think is really worth looking at is that more and more they’re not arresting people. More and more they’re just killing them, so that the number of writers killed every year is climbing. It’s over 200 now. And that violence against the word is really interesting. You say, well, that’s happening in Mexico, that’s happening in Honduras. Yeah, but it’s right on the edge of the West, and it’s not clear that it isn’t–I think it’s clear that this is related to the West, that it’s–would be a tiny step to see increasing violence.
And as you say, this is happening at the same time that freedom of expression is being compressed by Western governments. So it’s the old pickpocket thing, right? The pickpocket makes you look over there so they can take the money from your pocket there. So you say, look at the terrorists, look at the terrorists. So the truth is, of the, say, 200 writers killed a year, about 175 of them are killed not by people involved in religion. They’re killed by presidents, police, army, corporations, organized crime, and usually they’re working together. So they’re saying, look over there. In reality, it’s fairly standard governmental systems. Most of those governments are working closely with Western governments, Mexico being a good example.
And if you say, where has the most damage been done to freedom of expression in the world over the last 25 years–new damage, not continuation, new damage–it’s been done in the United States, in Canada, in England, in France, because since 2001, the security forces and the people who work with them or the people who are weak and will go along with them have used this as an opportunity to drive fear into the population and use this as an excuse, frankly, to break the constitutions and bills of rights of most Western democracies. I think eventually some of that will be rolled back, and you can see little signs of it. But the time that happens, so much damage will have been done. And the more that freedom of expression is constrained, the harder it is to get out of the situation that we’re in in terms of corporatism.
HEDGES: Thank you, John.
SAUL: Thank you.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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